Tuesday, March 13, 2007

You May Take Away My Polite Laughter, New York Times, but You'll Never Take My Muffin Joke


The New York Times reports that neuroscience now tells us why people laugh, and it's not because something's funny. It's because we want to signal friendliness to people:
When Robert R. Provine tried applying his training in neuroscience to laughter 20 years ago, he naïvely began by dragging people into his laboratory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to watch episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and a George Carlin routine. They didn’t laugh much. It was what a stand-up comic would call a bad room.

So he went out into natural habitats — city sidewalks, suburban malls — and carefully observed thousands of “laugh episodes.” He found that 80 percent to 90 percent of them came after straight lines like “I know” or “I’ll see you guys later.” The witticisms that induced laughter rarely rose above the level of “You smell like you had a good workout.”

“Most prelaugh dialogue,” Professor Provine concluded in “Laughter,” his 2000 book, “is like that of an interminable television situation comedy scripted by an extremely ungifted writer.”
Link (register or use BugMeNot). But what really bakes my muffin is that the Times demonstrates this insight by irrelevantly and misleadingly skewering one of my favorite jokes, right there in the lead. Jack Balkin says the muffin joke is funny, and, dagnabbit, if Balkin says it's funny, it's funny.

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Image credits: "Muffins Baking in an Oven," Fir0002, Wikipedia, acquired via GNU Free Documentation License.


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